UNC Charlotte needs to distinguish itself from the state's other universities. To do that, it has to build a stronger identity. That's accomplished not with marketing, but with strong academic programs that cement the university and its mission to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region and set it apart in the broader world.
A new energy center funded by the 2008 legislature will provide a significant boost to that effort. The center targets an urgent, high-profile public need – energy alternatives – and positions UNCC to be a leader in that field.
That's a big score for a young, emerging university. It shows University of North Carolina system leaders and state lawmakers have significant confidence in the state's fourth-largest university and are committed to its development.
The newly approved state budget provides UNCC with $57.5 million – full funding – to build an innovative Energy Production and Infrastructure Center to train engineers to build and run power plants, particularly nuclear reactors.
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The center is to be cutting-edge. It will address a timely need confronting North Carolina (and the nation) in an age of soaring oil prices. Safe, clean and cost-efficient sources of energy are critical to North Carolina's economy and the well-being of its citizens. It's clear those sources must include alternatives to petroleum.
The EPIC center, under development by UNCC for years, will be instrumental in that effort. It positions the university to be a leader in improving energy efficiency and reducing dependence on traditional energy sources.
Here's how Chancellor Philip Dubois sees it: Major energy companies will be looking to UNCC “to help address a critical shortage in the intellectual capital necessary to modernize energy production operations and develop alternative energy sources.”
That's as timely a role as a university can embrace at a time when there's a sea change in the energy world.
The new role also can help define a critical era of the campus' life. Rapid growth in enrollment and programs attest to UNCC's potential. Yet its relative youth has left it without a clear identity, both in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region and among its UNC peers.
That identity should reflect its urban setting. It should reflect the needs of a region where the economy changes rapidly. It should distinguish UNCC from similar universities around the nation.
The EPIC center can help meet those goals. Getting full funding for it in a time of economic uncertainty is a milestone our region should applaud.
Why? It's nice to have the NASCAR Hall of Fame and pro sports teams. But a public university has a deeper impact on the daily life and long-term prospects of an up-and-coming metropolitan region.